Branagh: Playing It Big and Wide in 'Frankenstein'

Gannett News, October 31, 1994
by Marshall Fine

Robert De Niro's rubber body suit was falling apart.

As he and Kenneth Branagh rolled around amid a ton of melted K-Y jelly (doubling for amniotic fluid) for the creation scene in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Branagh noticed that the prosthetic covering was splitting in the back. But there wasn't time or money to fix it - so Branagh simply tried to hold it in place with his hand over De Niro's otherwise nude posterior while they wrestled.

"I think that made him rather nervous - we didn't know each other that well yet," Branagh says with a smile. "It was a slightly bizarre thing. The doing of that scene was prone to a little hysteria."

Hysteria of a particularly overheated type was Branagh's goal in this latest version of the gothic classic. Branagh, who also directs, plays Victor Frankenstein and De Niro plays the creature. The $44-million film, which opens Friday, had been done every other way, he says.

"I wanted to get away from the idea of the nutty professor - of Colin Clive shouting, `It's alive!' and get to something operatic and feverish," says the Irish-born actor-director (whose name is pronounced BRAN-nuh).

"I wanted to make the creation sequence more unsettling and dangerous, unmelodramatic.

"I wanted to say, `It's alive' and reinvent it slightly. But that was a definite image in my mind. I wanted to make the camera style be almost inside Victor's head. I was going for frenzy."

Branagh wanted to make a faithful adaptation of the novel - but not a conventional horror film. "The novel is full of other things," he says. "There are discussions of family. It's a great love story. There's much about what goes on between father and son. It's the story of a dysfunctional family and an abandoned child. There's more to it than creating a big, lurching, grunting monster."

The film is the biggest undertaking ever for the 33-year-old British wunderkind. As he points out, the budget for this one film was larger than the combined cost of his previous four - including the Shakespearean battles of "Henry V" and the large cast and Italian locations for "Much Ado About Nothing."

"It's daunting if you let yourself think about it," he says. "I tried to concentrate on just the next little bit I had to do. From time to time, I'd think of the whole thing and be very scared indeed."

As if that weren't challenge enough, there was also the prospect of directing De Niro and working for Francis Ford Coppola, the film's producer.

"It was daunting to begin with but it disappeared when we met," Branagh says. "They're both very inspiring and they're both good collaborators. De Niro was a very generous co-worker. About three or four months into the nine-month preproduction period, I won his trust.

"Still, before and after, one begins to get a bit shaky. I look at the poster and see Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in the same movie and it's a little awe-inspiring. But he and Coppola don't carry any legend baggage around with them. They just get on with it."

In revisualizing the tale, Branagh sought a layer of scientific realism that would be right for the late 18th-century period of the film. Shelley, in her book, is particularly vague about the creation process, giving Branagh license to incorporate such then-new ideas as acupuncture and electricity.

"I wanted the science to be as plausible as possible, while making the birth imagery as sexual as possible," he says. "We were trying to wipe the slate clean and not be subject to all that baggage."

That included the look of the creature. Rather than the towering, grunting figure Boris Karloff played in James Whale's 1931 film, Branagh and De Niro followed the book, making the creature a figure of power, but also one who is articulate and malignantly intelligent. He is also portrayed as a medical horror, a stitched-together figure whose seams are not only visible but raw-looking."

The enduring nature of the "Frankenstein" story is not the same as the continued popularity of Boris Karloff's version of the character - though both obviously have staying power, Branagh says.

"(Shelley) tapped into what she wanted to - as she writes, `I shall busy myself with a story that speaks to the mysterious fear of nature,"' Branagh observes. "I don't know why we like to be scared. This is like a cautionary tale. We're like naughty children hearing about another naughty child, Victor Frankenstein, who almost gets away with it - but doesn't.

"When it was written, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people were facing a future that was almost unimaginable - and they were frightened. At this end of this century, we're facing a communications revolution that takes us almost the same way.

"And, with advances in genetic science, we may soon be faced with the dilemma of what to do if we can create life artificially."

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